I’ve mentioned before how out of all the things that the coronavirus pandemic has taken from us, what I miss the most might well be live music. The camaraderie and the spontaneous, electric energy that accompanies a band tearing up a stage. It’s one of the greatest things humanity has ever achieved. What a tragedy it is that the world’s stages have fallen silent.
The sadness I feel when thinking about all the live music missing from the world is often matched by that which comes bubbling up whenever I remember the vast number of permanently shuttered watering holes. I’m not talking about the All Bar Ones and the Be At Ones and the Slug and Lettuces. These grim, characterless identikit bar chains metastasising all over the British high street–and their international equivalents–will be just fine come the other end of the pandemic. I mean the dive bars of the world. Those beautiful, one-off, ill-matched misfits that make life worth living. Those refuges which already existed on the ragged edge of society, not backed by financial titans or shadowy money, supported only by the unyielding love of those people who call them a home away from home.
Released last year, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a film that taps into the feeling of losing these special places better than perhaps any other I’ve seen. Ostensibly set on the premises of Las Vegas dive bar The Roaring 20s, the film follows its staff and patrons over the course of the establishment’s final night before permanent closure. Initially intending to make a straight documentary about a real bar, co-directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross ended up blending fact and fiction in a sublime way by auditioning and hiring a diverse cast of barflies from all over the U.S. and then filming them over the course of two 18-hour days in a New Orleans bar while prompting them with situations and subjects.
There was some–‘controversy’ may be too strong a word, so let’s say ‘discussion’–around the release of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets that focused on what the Rosses were or were not claiming the film to be, with some people taking issue with what they perceived as the brothers trying to pass off a work of fiction as an unvarnished bit of true life filmmaking. Where the film truly lies on the spectrum between fact and fiction–and the nature of the liminal space between the two extreme ends–is a deeper discussion for another time. Whatever the intention behind the presentation of the Rosses’ project or the here and theres of its release, one thing remains undeniable: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets resonates with truth and soul in a way that only the best of the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction do.
A dive bar is a magical place. In my time I’ve known a lot and loved a few. From my perspective in the UK, it should be noted that a dive bar can also be a dive pub. There are big distinctions between the bars and pubs of this world, but any drinking establishment can be a dive. They just need to be unpretentious, unglamorous, with a decent layer of filth, and with a cast of regulars that love the place deeply. The magic of a good dive can scarcely be described. There’s a reason why so many upmarket or chain businesses try to summon up the essence of a dive by affecting the surface trappings of one. It’s the same reason why they fail. The character and authenticity of a true dive cannot be bought for money or replicated by an interior designer. It is built up over time, organically, brick by fraying brick. A dive’s corporeal foundation may well be the building that encloses it, but its essence is something ineffable, and irreplaceable.
A dive’s magic lives in its air and its history. In the atmosphere created by the shared humanity of those within it. And in its humility. It’s not a place that seeks to abide by the unyielding mantra of capitalist expansion that cries out for ‘more, more, more!’ A dive lives by the grace of its few regular patrons, and the added ad-hoc business of those who may wander in by chance. It doesn’t calculate its appeal on a spreadsheet or name the markets it seeks to conquer. It lives and breathes where it stands, and it is happy in its spot. Its staff know the patrons by name, and vice versa. If you are lucky enough to have a dive as a regular haunt, you know the feeling that washes over you as you walk through the door. It’s like passing through some benign, uncanny portal into another realm presided over by a deity who is already preparing to hand you your favourite drink as they see you enter.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets channels these feelings with aplomb. It conjures up an atmosphere on screen that instantly transports you into its world. Within minutes of the camera stepping into The Roaring 20s–and into the overlapping, natural conversations of its staff and regulars–you feel as if you had called the place home for years yourself too. It’s mind-boggling to me to try and imagine the mammoth tasks that editing and sound mixing this film must have been. Conversations get picked up on often mid-stream, other dialogue wafts in and out of earshot, occasionally overpowering the one taking place on camera. Topics bounce around and get left unresolved. Ambient bar noise like glasses clinking is often foregrounded. Characters interrupt each other and fly off on tangents. This is, of course, how life–and bar conversation–really works. It helps that a lot of the filmed conversation here simply was natural and improvised, but nevertheless, to have captured its spontaneous and effortless nature in such a way is worthy of adulation.
Some of the people in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets have prior acting experience and others don’t. It doesn’t matter which are which. All are fully believable, and most extremely sympathetic. For the 98 minutes of its run time, the veracity of feeling playing out onscreen is the only thing you care about. The strength and depth of that feeling is evident in every frame. The atmosphere in the last night of The Roaring 20s is an intoxicating cocktail of effervescent joy and at times overwhelming sadness. Its patrons know that time has been called on the beloved venue that had allowed them to build a surrogate family out of complete strangers. So they party long into the night, dancing and singing, and chatting endlessly about everything and anything, reminiscing and speculating, arguing and reconciling, commiserating and celebrating.
There’s a lot that could be talked about when it comes to Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. About the craft on display and the playful way the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are explored, but what stands out to me more than anything else is just how powerfully it captures the sorrow of so many places like The Roaring 20s that we have lost over the past year. In a landscape of ever more prevalent commodification and same-ification, dive bars are a remnant from another world. A constellation of glowing points in the night that light the way home. It’s a constellation that has sadly seen many of its stars wink out of existence in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the apathy and vicious priorities of rotten governments who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reminds you of how awful it is when these places vanish from the map, yes, but it also shows how much joy they bring to the world while they still exist.